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Art agent provocateur

Fans of classical music and dance will find Maxim Gershunoff's new memoir absorbing.

November 18, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

The unsung, frequently maligned hero behind every successful musician is an agent -- or, in the loftier language of the trade, an artist's representative. Maxim Gershunoff is one such individual with a greater claim than most on Angelenos' attention.

He collaborated with Stravinsky and Franz Waxman to create the Los Angeles Music Festival at UCLA in the 1950s, helped James A. Doolittle launch successful seasons at the Greek Theatre and worked with Sol Hurok in bringing dance companies such as the Bolshoi, the Kirov and the Moiseyev to the Southland during the Cold War.

His friends and clients included Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He also launched the career of a cellist who was then 16, Yo-Yo Ma.

Now Gershunoff, 81, has written his memoirs, "It's Not All Song and Dance," with Leon Van Dyke, and the book reveals not only a lost golden age in the performing arts but also some artists with feet of clay. (He'll be at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena this evening and at Dutton's in Beverly Hills on Sunday afternoon to sign books and take questions.)

The son of Russian emigre musicians who were brought to the U.S. by Hurok in 1923, Gershunoff came to arts management indirectly. He first studied trumpet at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber were among his classmates. He then played under Fritz Reiner and Arturo Toscanini but grew increasingly bored by the repetitive aspects of the job. So, with encouragement from conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, he went into arts management, ultimately serving for 12 years as vice president of Hurok Concerts Inc. He remains active in the field, representing, among others, soprano Marni Nixon and conductor Jose Serebrier.

Doolittle, who died in 1997 at 83, may be a hero to Angelenos. But not to Gershunoff. The impresario, he claims, finessed him and two other founding associates, Eleanor Peters and William Westcott, out of the Greek Theatre Assn. after its first successful summer season in 1951.

"We were naive," Gershunoff said in a recent phone interview from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "The role Jimmy played was 'Help me, help me, because I can't do it myself.' We dove in, not thinking for ourselves."

Their efforts paid off, but later Peters, Westcott and he discovered that Doolittle had omitted their names from the association's founding charter, then manipulated them into resigning so he could take all the credit.

"We didn't speak for 40 years," Gershunoff said.

Readers who followed the drama of Soviet-era Kirov dancers Valery and Galina Panov struggling to emigrate to Israel will find similarly disappointing news. The Soviets didn't jail Valery Panov for being a freedom fighter, Gershunoff writes, but because he beat up his wife's mother. Moreover, after emigrating to Israel, Panov hated living there and worked to get out as quickly as possible.

"Panov was simply an opportunist, with no ethics whatsoever," Gershunoff said.

There are also gossipy stories about Howard Hughes' fascination with Ballets de Paris star Renee "Zizi" Jeanmaire and about Robert F. Kennedy's and Warren Beatty's interest in Plisetskaya.

Though no one is likely to want a return to the days when the Soviet agency that booked artists internationally took the bulk of performers' earnings, Gershunoff said that, for a promoter, there's a downside to the freedom that Russian artists enjoy today.

"It's less interesting to bring those huge, wonderful companies now that the stars can come in and be a guest with some other company," he said.

And the world has changed. Hurok's strategy was to invest his own money and build careers patiently if he had to.

"He figured if he lost on something, he'd make it another time. He brought the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on the last boat that left Europe before the war," he said.

Though American audiences were unfamiliar with the company, Gershunoff said, Hurok "made it known little by little. He also made the guitar be a classical instrument by booking recitals over and over again."

Still, Hurok had far more venues available to him than promoters have these days, when the demand for classical artists has fallen off sharply at colleges and universities and the community concert associations that brought culture at low cost to so many people have almost vanished.

For those conditions, Gershunoff faults lack of music education and insufficient government sponsorship of the arts.

"Other countries invest money in their artists," he said, "and one sign of that sponsorship is the number of Finns on podiums around the world and the winners in the recent Cliburn competition, none of whom were Americans."

He also sees many of today's presenters as wrongheaded.

"They are basically unartistic marketing people. So they have to go the safe road, engaging and reengaging the same artists, blowing up their series with the image of somewhat faded names.... This is leading into a dead-end, one-way street."

If all this makes Gershunoff sound like a curmudgeon, he's not. He's cultured, direct and amusing, and not worried about remarks about, for instance, the Panovs that might seem libelous.

"That doesn't concern me at all," he said. "We have an attorney who was more worried about the Kennedy family and Warren Beatty. When we talked about being sued, he said, 'You should be so lucky.' "

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